I’m sure any usual follower of sports media might have suspected the 2014 World Cup in Brazil to be a bit of a lame duck in the United States. No, not the thought that the United States team was marooned in a group of death, but that the ESPN broadcast would be treated like a bit of an afterthought. That there might be a few corners cut, or less of an effort put on than in South Africa for the 2010 tournament.
In just a week and a half, ESPN has quieted anyone who might have assumed that. ESPN Senior VP/Executive Producer Jed Drake’s words to me in May (and Fox’s David Hill shortly after 2010) that they would make South Africa “look like a warmup act” have been nothing short of prophetic. ESPN has gone all-in on covering the matches, all-in on providing studio coverage, all-in on keeping viewers invested on off-field stories from the tournament.
For just a minute, we turn our eyes to 2018, and to Fox, who gains the World Cup rights that year in Russia as well as wherever it’s going to be held that isn’t Qatar in 2022. But then you have to realize that 2018 is too far way. You have turn your eyes to Fox in 10 months, in 12 months, and in two years as well.
Fox has been slowly building its soccer portfolio up again since losing the rights to Premier League in 2013. Here’s a year-by-year look at what they’ll be airing just in the next few years.
Fall 2014-2018: UEFA Champions League
April 2015-2022: Major League Soccer
June 2015, 2019: Women’s World Cup
July 2015: CONCACAF Gold Cup (and any potential playoff between the U.S. and the winners of the 2015 tournament to determine CONCACAF’s participant in the 2017 Confederations Cup)
June-July 2016: Copa America Centenario (the centennial version of the famed South American tournament, which will be hosted and participated in by the United States and Mexico along with the elite teams of South America. Fox has not officially announced a deal for the tournament, but was granted an exclusive negotiation period)
2016-2017: Exactly half of the United States’ qualifiers for the 2018 World Cup
2017, 2021: FIFA Confederations Cup
2018, 2022: FIFA World Cup
ESPN (who shares in MLS, the USMNT and also owns the rights to Euro 2016) and NBC (who owns Premier League rights through 2016) certainly have their stakes in the beautiful game, but Fox and its networks will be where it shines brightest, especially for Americans. The thing is, it’ll be sooner rather than later, and Fox’s soccer department remains a bit of a mixed bag.
There are certainly bright sports to Fox’s soccer team, even to the most cynical observer. Rob Stone (whom most would see as the safe bet to anchor much of Fox’s World Cup coverage) has been for many years one of the most active, visible advocates and presenters of soccer in this country. A couple of their analysts are likable and informed, and host Julie Stewart-Binks continues to get better and better.
Everything else just seems to have a permanent bad taste in the mouth of U.S. soccer fans. Eric Wynalda and Warren Barton are extremely polarizing. I contend that Gus Johnson can better with more reps, but he’s not getting nearly enough, and there are many who believe he’ll never be satisfactory. Then there’s the fact that they’ve never had a tournament like the World Cup to go all out on, and network’s natural love of gimmickry, and use of Piers Morgan sometimes because really, who doesn’t love that guy?
I’m under the impression that if you ask the hardcore soccer fan, the opinion of Fox’s soccer coverage is middling at best. They’ve tried numerous approaches (Curt Menefee hosting the Champions League Final! Gus and Eric! Martin Tyler!) and haven’t really settled on one that’s clicked at a network level and a viewer level. This just a year before they become, almost by default, the network of record for a lot of the matches hardcore (and casual) soccer fans care about.
Right away, they need to be very good. I’m of the opinion that Fox needs to start off by taking the Women’s World Cup in 2015 very seriously, even to the point of overkill. Don’t take that tournament lightly, because viewers will be able to tell if they are. The tourney is in Canada, and I think most soccer fans want to see an effort that — if not better — is at least equal to what ESPN is doing in Brazil, if only because of Canada’s proximity to this country.
I believe that’s doable. Set up a home base in Vancouver, where the final is being held, send commentators live to all the matches, and produce interesting stories about a U.S. women’s team that still, in many ways, has as much name recognition as most of their male counterparts. Combine that with the burgeoning women’s soccer rivalry between the United States and Canada, and there’s the potential to make a very impressive showing right off the bat. Call it “getting a result” in soccer parlance.
It’s only to get more difficult from there. Fox Sports 1 will have an MLS game of the week, and the network would be well off to try and become the first network to cover the league well from a journalistic standpoint, and finding a way to really own the growing league as a beat. Bundesliga comes along later next year, and while that is acceptably left to world feed commentators with a network-produced studio show, it’d be good to see Fox send commentators out for a few matches, similar to how NBC has Arlo White and co. calling at least two per week.
Then you have the Gold Cup, which Fox did an okay job of last year, but it could be better. CONCACAF is clearly making a play to make each Gold Cup a premiere event, with the winners of the 2013 and 2015 tourneys to meet in a playoff to determine the conference’s representative in the Confederations Cup. If the United States wins, they automatically make it in, but can you imagine how Fox could own a US-Mexico playoff to determine that spot? More and more opportunities.
From there, you have Copa America’s Centenario in 2016, which will provide possibly the most fascinating summer of soccer ever on American television. With a few exceptions, most days we will see ESPN broadcasting competition from the Euro tournament, and most nights Fox will have a chance to cover the Copa America, which will feature the U.S. against both Mexico and the best teams from North and South America on their home turf. Fox will not only need to be as good as ESPN by then, but hopefully better, because if not… then American soccer fans will start to become justifiably concerned about the network’s ability to cover a World Cup.
That’s all in the future. However, so much of the future is coming quickly. Fox has an opportunity to take the baton from ESPN that, from a ratings standpoint, already gives Fox a few standards to grow on. The question is if Fox can go as in-depth and become as well liked as a soccer network, because they’re about to inherit a generation of new fans ready to embrace the world’s game. 2015 is sooner than you think.